Beyond this parvis we have the north portal of the basilica of Santiago, called the French
Expressed through the iconography of the sculpture above their double doorways, they combined to present a history of the Christian redemption narrative through the medium of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
The north portal was the entrance known as the Porta Francigena, and is described as the one used by those arriving from France. This was the way pilgrims arrived at their destination.
At the great cathedral of Compostela, the pilgrims were greeted by an image of everything which their long journey had been intended to overcome. This was nothing less than the Fall of Man, presided over by a Christ in Majesty, hand raised in benediction.
On the square immediately in front of the portal was a large stone basin.
It was surmounted by four lions whose mouths acted as water spouts, continuously filling the basin. Intended for the refreshment of the pilgrims, the fountain symbolised, after the completion of their journey, the transformation of the Four French Roads into the Four Rivers of Paradise.
The lions alluded to Christ the Redeemer providing the Water of Life and the ribbed exterior of the basin was shaped to resemble a scallop shell, transforming the whole fountain into a symbol of the theme of Resurrection.
The fountain was the centrepoint of an atrium or parvis and an intentional evocation of the Paradisus of Constantine’s basilica of St Peter’s in Rome. This reminder of Eden was the prelude to the carved Genesis cycle of the Fall of Man depicted above the entrance to the cathedral. As the first volume of the Jacobus declares, “Adam is considered the first pilgrim”.
The depiction of the Fall on the north portal supplied the context for pilgrims arriving at the Apostle’s shrine. Their journey was one necessitated by Original Sin and that, through the intercession of the saint whose mortal remains where held beyond the portal, they could obtain a return to Paradise.
The Pilgrim’s Guide provides a description of the iconographic programme. Above the right doorway a series of reliefs showed the Creation of Adam and Eve, the Reprimand after Original Sin and the Expulsion. According to the Guide’s account, this scene is surrounded by a multiplicity of images, “and other creatures whose aspect and characteristics we cannot provide here due to their great number”.
Surviving sculptural elements suggest that these included the Signs of the Zodiac and the Labours of the Months. Representing the passage of earthly time, they were a discourse on the consequences of the Fall.
Thus a Sagittarian Centaur shoots arrows and pierces the heart of a Siren representing Pisces, an allegory of the destructive nature of passion. A Crossbowman preparing his weapon is a symbol of Discord.
A man rides a rooster indicating lust. An Eve suckling the baby Cain recalls the words of Genesis, “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”.
The scenes of the Fall are counterpointed by Old Testament figures who were considered prefigurations of Christ. Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac and King David the Musician. This promise of future redemption was made explicit in a depiction of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin which was located above the left doorway.
Maps of the world which were included in the illuminated manuscripts of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse featured depictions of Paradise. It was represented by the Four Rivers, the Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel and Euphrates which the Book of Genesis mentions as emanating from Eden. The Beatus maps depicted the Apostles in those places where they had fulfilled their mission. The Beatus copy from the cathedral of El Burgo de Osma of 1086, features only two, Peter in Rome and James at Compostela.
The Porta Francigena was destroyed in 1757-8, however many of the reliefs found their way onto the Puerta de las Platerias, where they can be seen today.
Biblio: Santiago de Compostela in the time of Diego Gelmirez, Barbara Abou-El-Haj, Gesta XXXVI/2 1997
Reading Romanesque Sculpture: The Iconography and Reception of the South Portal Sculpture at Santiago de Compostela, Karen Rose Mathews, Gesta XXXIX/1 2000
The Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: A Reassessment, Christabel Watson, BAR International Series 1979-2009
The Codex Calixtinus as an Art-Historical Source, S Moralejo in John Williams / Alison Stones The Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of St. James 1992
Manuel Castiñeiras: Didacus Gelmirez, Patron of the arts. Compostela’s long journey: From the periphery to the centre of Romanesque art. Compostela and Europe : the story of Diego Gelmírez.Milano : Skira, c2010.
Topographie Sacrée, Liturgie Pascale et Reliques dans les grands centres de pèlerinage: Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Saint-Isidore-de-Léon et Saint-Étienne-de-Ribas-de-Sil, Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Les Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa, XXXIV, 2003
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